A robotics pilot program is helping some Kentucky students develop programming skills and preparing them for a future filled with robots.
Students at Bullitt Lick Middle School in Shepherdsville, Ky., started a new robotics class this fall with the Nao (pronounced “now”) robot. The robot is on loan from the Kentucky Academy of Technology Education at Murray State University, which trains teachers to work with technology in the classroom.
The academy's director, Ron Milliner, renamed the robot “Kentucky's Automated Technology Educator, “or “KATE” for short. Aldebaran Robotics in France designed the robot for a number of applications, including education and research. Milliner hopes that the pilot will give schools a chance to test the robot’s programming and see whether they want to invest in the technology long-term.
"The next generation science standards have come out, and there's a big focus on engineering in those, so we thought we'd try to encourage some schools to get into robotics and programming," Milliner said.
The class has a lot to learn. None of the 30 students or the teacher knows much about robotics. But they're learning together as they program KATE and work with the curriculum.
"I don't know anything about robotics other than what I've done in the Army,” said Shaun McIntosh, a science teacher at Bullitt Lick Middle School. “I used to fly Apaches for the Army, so I figured if I could learn how to fly Apaches, I'm sure I could learn how to teach kids about robotics."
By exploring robotics together, McIntosh is giving up some control in his classroom. It hasn’t been easy, but the change is paying off.
"They have really showed me how creative they are with some of their ideas, and how much they are willing to learn something new," McIntosh said of his students.
The students work in groups to come up with an idea, create a storyboard of how KATE will move and talk, and program her using the software she comes with. McIntosh set three major objectives for students: Learn how to work cooperatively, learn how to program robots and learn how to develop a storyboard for a project.
As soon as the students finish a piece of their programming, McIntosh pulls out the robot and displays how their programming worked.
"They love it; they're really engaged with it," McIntosh said. "It's hands-on, and they're learning and its immediate feedback, which is really cool."
Some students decided to have KATE do the Harlem Shake dance and perform the trailer of Ender's Game, a science fiction movie that will be released in November. But other students plan to use their programming for educational purposes. This fall, a group of students will co-teach the water cycle with KATE at Shepherdsville Elementary School. Both the students and KATE will talk, and they'll interact with each other.
They'll also get to share their work with the rest of their school. McIntosh plans to push several groups of students to have their performances ready for a fall showcase and then also prepare for a winner's showcase that parents attend.
Ultimately, McIntosh hopes that his experience will help other teachers learn. And he wants to prepare students for a life that's full of robots.
"I want to make sure my students walk away with the fulfillment and knowledge that they need for working with robots," McIntosh said, "because I think you're going to see that a lot more in the future personally."